My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Prairie Farm Prayer Journey

In 1847 Captain William Wilson, a partner of Knapp Stout & Co., with two other men came up from Menomonie in canoes. Coming up Hay River they traveled up Vance Creek for a short distance and then went overland northeast and came out on the top of the mill bluff which overlooks what is now Prairie Farm.

Captain Wilson saw the level prairie covered only with scrub oak and hazel brush and he said “the prairie farm,” thinking this would be a good place for the Co. to open up a farm, a supply camp and a saw mill.”
Pages from the Past: An early history of Chetek and surrounding communities by Hazel Calhoun

Last Friday I drove down to Prairie Farm, a small village in the southwest part of our county, and spent a good part of the day there. I went because I felt led, maybe even urged, to pray there. As I have relayed in previous posts, for some time now an item on my “bucket list” has been to run every road in Barron County. Inspired by Genesis 13:17 – where Yahweh instructs Abram to “go, walk through the length and breadth of the land” - I have made it my ambition to go and run every public road in the county that I call home. Admittedly, it's going to take me a long time to complete this project (if ever!) but be that as it may, this past Memorial Day I drove the twenty-three miles to Prairie Farm and ran every street in this village of 508 people. All total it was a 5.8 mile run, a short run as mine go. But while running these same streets I felt compelled to return and pray in this village in whatever way God would lead me to pray there. This past Friday became the day to do this.

On my way out of town, I stopped at Kwik Trip to fuel up. After paying for my gas and walking back to my van, I noticed a friend of mine, who was also gassing up, who was waving me over. She was driving a beautiful Corvette that was old enough to deserve a blue license plate. When I got over to her she asked me a question that turned out to be my prayer point for the day, “Do you have any jumper cables?” I quickly checked the back of my van and reported that unfortunately I didn't. She laughed and told me not to worry about it, that she would find someone to give her a jump. As I drove down Highway I, her question continued to roll around in my mind as well as the image of this beautiful sports car, lovingly maintained, surrounded by enough gasoline to keep it running for thousands of miles but dead, stalled, without spark or fire. Was the Spirit of the Lord saying I was being sent to this village to provide a spark or that I was going to meet someone who needed a “jump” or what?Of course, the Spirit is the electrical charge but he needs a conduit to run through so I chose to pray in my prayer language all the way from just outside of Chetek through Dallas and finally to the village limits of Prairie Farm as a way of getting my cables ready, as it were.
Nice wheels but  doesn't move
A very nice park
My first stop was Pioneer Park on the west side of what is referred to as the Prairie Farm flowage, a large recreational area created by the damming of the Hay River here. I had never been to this park before and immediately I was impressed with how clean and well maintained it is. There is a tennis/basket ball court, beautiful playground area, volleyball, swimming as well as an area where they must have tractor or horse pulls (complete with full bleachers). The park has been lovingly decorated with a plethora of wood carvings (a lion, a giraffe, a panther and a lot of bears) made, I presume, by chain saws by local carvers called the Bear Guys (and thus why so many bears). There were only a few campers (and none of them out) and a couple of kids hanging out under one of the picnic shelters. I had brought along my GPS unit and geocacher that I am, decided that the first order of business was to find the cache hid at the park. It gave me a legitimate excuse to explore, which was, in part, what this day was about.
This was one of my favorite carvings
This town has a lot of Panther Pride

The Hay River Dam
I walked the asphalt path to the dam and was impressed with the high bluff to my immediate right. It was beautiful. Near the dam I discovered a path that zig-zagged its way up to the top of the bluff (perhaps the same bluff that Capt Wilson and his small band of discovery stood upon when they first looked upon Prairie Farm?) and following the needle I walked to the north side that looked down upon the camp. It took me awhile to find GZ (probably because of the immense shade) but the clue was enough to help me find the hide if only by process of elimination. By the time I made my way back to the dam, the kids had left so I walked back to my van, grabbed my satchel carrying my Bible and journal and found an isolated picnic table to wait on the Lord.

Perhaps the same bluff that Capt. Wilson once stood upon?

While I journaled, a maintenance man busied himself cutting and trimming the grass and cleaning the bathrooms. This may be a small town park but it is clear that Prairie Farm takes pride in it for it is lovingly maintained. Because it it is named Pioneer Park I simply turned to Hebrews 11:1 and read out loud the entire “faith” chapter as well as the first three verses of chapter 12. This became my second prayer point of the day – praying for “the pioneers”, those still faithful servants of God who live within the village who continue to “live by faith” (v. 13) regardless of the fruit they may be seeing. They are stalwart in believing the promises of God. They are “longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (v. 16)

All these years later...
Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them. (The Message, 11:13-16)

Then I returned to my original prayer-point – those in need of a spiritual “jump” (by the way, when I arrived at Pioneer Park I looked in the back of my van once again and found my cables buried under a lot of junk) – and prayed that any of the “faith-pioneers” in this village who were discouraged or whose faith was flagging that God would give them the spark they needed to continue to live by faith. That they would hear the roar of the great crowd of heaven cheering them on to finish the course they had committed themselves to (Heb 12:1-3).

At one time it held carillon bells
Later I decided to drive over to United Lutheran Church (ULC) and see if the pastor was about. Unless there is a small fellowship of people meeting in someone's home, ULC is the only game in town when it comes to a faith community. It is located on River Street and according to their web site was officially named “United” in 1947 when First Lutheran and Solum Lutheran churches consolidated (although there has been a Lutheran presence in Prairie Farm since the 1870s). No one was around so I sat on the bench at the GAR Memorial right next door and spent some time listening and silently praying there. Like the park, ULC is clearly lovingly maintained. It is a beautiful facility and the manner in which its yard, flower beds and grounds are kept up reveal the pride they must take in what God has given them. The fact that the bell from the original building that was destroyed in a fire on Easter Sunday 1964 has a special place on the lawn near their brand new lighted sign speak to me of a faith community that embraces its history, even celebrates it, but at the same time is looking ahead to the future generations of believers who will be discipled within. So, I sat on that bench and prayed for ULC, for the pastor and her family that whatever was stalled, whatever and whoever needed a spiritual jump would be open to the Holy Spirit's empowering work.

As I sat on that bench and looked south down River Street I was struck by the fact that while Prairie Farm is an old town – in fact, it was the very first settlement in Barron County back in 1848 – the trustees of the town, the people of the community, the members of ULC, take pride in their village. Prairie Farm does not have the feel of a small town which reached its nadir “back in the day” but a quiet yet inviting community holding promise to those who choose to make it their home. They have a well maintained nursing home and a beautiful K-12 school and adjoining athletic fields. “Panther Pride” (Prairie Farm HS's mascot is the panther) clearly runs deep here.

While sitting and enjoying the breeze and the view, an elderly woman pulled into ULC's driveway and parked outside the front door. I walked over to her and asked where I might find the pastor. She was very friendly and quickly gave me directions to the parsonage. (I wanted to look inside but not wanting her to be afraid, I didn't ask her.) I drove down River Street in search of the parsonage and when I found it, I couldn't tell if anyone was home so I decided to go in search of another geocache placed near town located out on South Road. It was right near the bridge over the Hay River and though I looked high and low for it, I came up empty (ditto for the one hid over on Brewster Street as well that I had looked for before stopping at ULC). Since it was near lunchtime, I decided to head to the only eatery in town – The Packer Inn.
Good burgers served here
The place was near empty except for a guy at the other end of the bar who was busily working on his cheeseburger and checking his smart phone. The TV in the bar was turned to some country western station and the bartender (who I found out shortly was also the owner) was busy in the kitchen. She quietly came out, took my order (I told her I wanted what that guy was eating) and then she returned to the kitchen. The man didn't seem like he was in a talkative mood (and, as I gleaned from his parting conversation with the bartender, not a local) so I left him to his phone and watched the program on television. Admittedly, country music is not my style but my guess is a lot of the folks around here enjoy it enough. I will say that the cheeseburger that the young woman served up to me was by far the best burger I've had in quite a long time. It was no frozen patty microwaved and served on a stale bun but had that fresh-from-the-grill-to-my-plate taste. Yet another pleasant discovery that I made in Prairie Farm that day.

After lunch I decided to stop in at the parsonage, car or no car in the driveway, and see if anyone was about. The pastor was out but her husband was home and very shortly, Burt Schultz, had invited me to share with him what had brought me to their village. Burt, who is also a Lutheran pastor, serving congregations in Glen Flora and Ladysmith, was very open and welcoming. When I tried to console him for being willing to serve in a little knock about place like Glen Flora he was quick to point out that at their recent VBS, over 100 kids had participated. That is very impressive and I felt the Lord gently rebuke me and remind me what Francis Schaeffer had once said, “There are no small places.” Our visit was all of 15-20 minutes and consisted of getting acquainted, sharing about each other's ministries and a few items he suggested I might want to pray for. Other than that very welcoming senior citizen outside of ULC (Nellie is her name I learned later), Burt was the first person from Prairie Farm I had met that day and before I left his home we prayed together.

After I left the Schultz's, I decided to drive over to Sprague Street and do some prayer walking. Thanks to Hazel Calhoun's Pages from the Past: An early history of Chetek and surrounding communities (a copy of which sits near my journal in my office), I learned that Sprague Street is named after Ike Sprague, a guy who came to Prairie Farm in 1862 when he was only 20 years old. In time, he became the foreman of Knapp Stout & Co's operations in Prairie Farm. He later became the Postmaster as well. According to Hazel (who quotes The History of Barron Coutny published in 1922):
He [Ike] took a prominent part in the incorporation of the village and served as president of its first board of trustees. 

Looking down Ike's Street
I felt led to walk his street and as soon as I began to walk the worship song “Indescribable” began to run in my head. As I walked I more hummed it than sang it as I couldn't recall all the words. I walked as far as Allan, walked a block east and then walked south again on Bluff all the while praying in the spirit or quietly singing this song. There were a gaggle of people at one home laughing and chatting away at the end of their driveway but they didn't acknowledge me so I just kept on walking. For the third time that day, however, I was struck by the sense of self-respect that was evident in the citizens of this village for so many of the homes I passed were lovingly maintained.

When I returned to the van, I decided to drive back out to Pioneer Park. When I got there, I grabbed my satchel as well as my guitar and sat under the picnic shelter closest to the river and began to worship the Lord there. “Let the River Flow”, “Shine, Jesus, Shine”, “Shout to the Lord”, “Your Love Oh Lord”, “Indescribable” and “How Great Is Our God” was my selection. The words of the songs became my intercession for Prairie Farm

Worship by the river
Let the river flow,
Let river flow,
Holy Spirit, come
Move with power.
Let the river flow,
Let the river flow,
Holy Spirit, come
Move with power...”
(from “Let the River Flow” by Darnell Harris)

And so, right there near the shore of the Hay River, I prayed for an increase of the flow of the Holy Spirit in this community. This old, beautifully maintained village, the very first to be established in Barron County, needs a jump. There's nothing wrong with the engine. Nothing wrong with the transmission that a little spark can't cure. So I prayed for fresh fire, fresh juice from above.

Before I left town, I decided to make one more attempt at finding the caches hid on Brewster and South. And in short order I did. The thing is both caches had been staring me in the face and I had overlooked them on my previous attempts, thinking to find something different. But the Lord reminded me that appearances can be deceiving – and so can judgments. It's easy for others to discredit the great work of God that may be going on in a small community simply because it's small (like me discrediting God's work in Glen Flora – echoes of Nathaniel's scoffing “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” - not realizing that there is a vibrant faith community there who has a heart to influence children and are doing that capitally.) And its all relative. The guy serving in Eau Claire, perhaps, can make an assumption that nothing really can be going on in a small town like Chetek just like I may be guilty of making the same assessment of what may be going on in a place the size of Prairie Farm. But there are interesting discoveries to be made if only we have eyes to see them. Which is the invitation the Holy Spirit extends to us, “Come and see” (John 1:47).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Reads: Still More Readings from Narnia (Part 3)

During the last week of the 2011-12 school year, I chose six readings from The Chronicles of Narnia to read. This is the final installment.

Tuesday, June 5: Chapter 15 “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time” from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The worst has happened. Aslan is dead. In order to save Edmund from having to pay for his treachery, Aslan willingly surrenders himself to the White Witch (Jadis, the Queen of Charn, unwittingly awoken in The Magician’s Nephew – see my last blog) who kills him mercilessly upon the Stone Table. Defying Aslan’s command to return to the camp, Susan and Lucy witness everything hidden in a copse of trees. After the Witch and her minions depart, the girls keep watch through the night by the slain lion. In the early hours of the morning feeling cold and sad through and through they get up to walk about the mound in an attempt to get warm. And just as the sun begins to creep above the rim of the horizon, a loud deafening noise startles them, the sound of stone cracking in two. At first too afraid to turn around, they finally do only to discover that the Stone Table has been broken in two and Aslan is gone. Just as they are about to moan his loss all over again, they are startled by the sound of a voice.

“Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have left the body alone.”

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.

“Not now,” said Aslan.

“You’re not – not a - ?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.

“Do I look it?” he said.

“Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

Like so many others who love the Narnia stories, I love this moment. It is sheer triumph. It is like Mary meeting Jesus in the garden on that first Easter Sunday morning or Jesus walking through the locked door on that same day to stand among his disciples showing his hands and side all wrapped into one. Death, the great leveler of all, is foiled – and this time (ultimately) for good. His willing substitution of himself in the place we all justly deserved totally screws up the machinery of the universe (i.e., “The wages of sin is death…”) and in the wreckage a new truth is written (i.e., “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.)

After a joyful romp with the girls playing, as it were, cat and mouse (except with him being the mouse), it’s back to work. After all, the Witch is still at work and a battle is ensuing.

“And now,” said Aslan presently, “to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears.”

I think when Gabriel finally blows his horn summoning the return of the King, that blow will rival Aslan’s roar. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, June 6: Chapter 16 “Farewell to Shadowlands” from The Last Battle
Frankly, I love the whole chapter and think the whole thing is worth reprinting. Old Narnia has ceased to be. All the characters we have come to know and love (save Susan) are reunited – the Pevensies (Peter, Edmund and Lucy), Eustace and Jill, Digory and Polly, Trumpkin the Dwarf, Reepicheep the Mouse, Caspian and Rilian, Trufflehunter and Tumnus and all the others all make their appearance in the closing pages of the book. They are “dead” and “in heaven” as we would call it. But there are no disembodied saints playing harps and laying on clouds in Aslan’s country. Everything is rich and redolent and teeming with life. “…there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going up for ever.” But Aslan notices a tinge of sadness on Lucy’s face and says:

“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

“Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.’”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

“Their hearts leapt, and a wild hope rose within them.”

“ ‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’”

In my opinion, that last sentence is one of the most powerful in English literature. “This is the morning” – what a fitting way to begin the first day of the New Heavens and the New Earth. As John the Revelator put it,

“I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They're his people, he's their God. He'll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone." The Enthroned continued, "Look! I'm making everything new…”
(Revelation 21:1-5, Msg)

It reminds me that no matter how beautiful and wonderful the sights and moments of life on this side of the Stable Door, as Scripture says, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (Paul quoting Isaiah in 1 Corinthians 2:9).

This series of posts on the last week of our family reading for the 2011-12 school year concludes with one of my favorite in all literature. It is the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia and it stirs a longing to join – one day – that festive throng that now enjoys His company forever.

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Good Reads: More Readings from Narnia (Part 2)

During the last week of Emma's school year, I selected six readings from The Chronicles of Narnia. My last post was Days 1 and 2 from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy. The next two selections come from Prince Caspian and The Magician's Nephew.

Friday, June 1: Chapter 11 “The Lion Roars” from Prince Caspian
Several hundred years have passed since Kings Peter and Edmund and Queens Susan and Lucy ruled in Cair Paravel but upon their being summoned back into Narnia they learn that the land is now ruled by the hated Telmarines. All the good beasts of Narnia have been driven away by King Miraz and his soldiers, Aslan is but a myth from the “old days” and everything they had once known is gone. In time they learn they have returned to restore the old order of things and in their quest to do this they engage the help of Trumpkin, a no-nonsense dwarf who has “no use for magic lions which are talking lions and don't talk, and friendly lions though they don't do us any good, and whopping big lions though nobody can see them.” In his frank assessment, “It's all bilge and beanstalks as far as I can see.” But he proves to be a faithful, loyal companion and follows the four even when they take paths he considers are foolish ones.

In the end, of course, he discovers that he has been quite wrong about certain mythical lions and has a face-to-face encounter with the Lion, the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea which would unnerve the stoutest of warriors:

“ ‘And now!’ said Aslan in a much louder voice with just a hint of a roar in it, while his tale lashed his flanks. ‘And now, where is this little Dwarf, this famous swordsman and archer, who doesn’t believe in lions? Come here, Son of Earth, come HERE!’ and the last word was no longer the hint of a roar but almost the real thing.”

“ ‘Wraiths and wreckage,’ gasped Trumpkin in the ghost of a voice. The children, who knew Aslan well enough to see that he liked the Dwarf very much, were not disturbed; but it was quite another thing for Trumpkin who had never seen a lion before, let alone this Lion. He did the only sensible thing he could have done: that is, instead of bolting, he tottered towards Aslan.”

Aslan pounced. Have you ever seen a very young kitten being carried in the mother-cat’s mouth? It was like that. The Dwarf, hunched up in a little, miserable ball, hung from Aslan’s mouth. The Lion gave him one shake and all his armor rattled like a tinker’s pack and then – hey-presto – the Dwarf flew up in the air. He was as safe as if he had been in bed, though he did not feel so. As he came down the huge velveted paws caught him as gently as a mother’s arms and set him (right way up, too) on the ground.”

“ ‘Son of Earth, shall we be friends?’ asked Aslan.”

“ ‘Ye-he-he-hes,’ panted the Dwarf, for it had not yet got its breath back.”

I think of what Saul (later Paul) must have felt that first morning after his encounter with Jesus on that road to Damascus. There he sits alone in a friend's house, blind and dejected, his mind all a whirl as he tries to process what had just happened to him the day before. Everything that he had stood for – and against – had been turned upside down. And then a few days later comes a fateful knock on the door. A stranger enters his room and utters the following words:

Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Acts 9:17-19, NIV)

I wonder if that moment was in the back of Lewis' mind as he wrote his words concerning Trumpkin. It's just like the Lord, isn't it. Though we resisted him – and some of us vehemently – he pursues us regardless and when we come to our senses he offers us friendship, sonship, calling and purpose. At that moment in Paul's life, I'm sure he wasn't feeling very worthy of anything but judgment. After all, he had authorized the stoning of Stephen and the arrest of so many other disciples of the One who was at that very moment extending his hand in friendship. But he takes the hand offered and surrenders himself to the leadership of Him who pursued him so.

Monday, June 4: Chapter 4 “The Bell and the Hammer” from The Magician's Nephew
Digory (later the sage Professor Kirke who lives in a castle in the countryside at which four young children from war-torn London come to live with) and Polly, have got into a world by way of magic rings Digory's conceited uncle Andrew has constructed. By putting on the rings they are whisked away to the magical “wood between the worlds” and then by stepping into one of the many pools that dot this “inbetween” place they end up, as they later learn, in the dead world and city of Charn. Prominent there is a huge palace-like structure that they explore and eventually come upon a great hall full of people still as stone.

Digory and Polly conclude that these are not statues but actually real people magically in stasis, “like the most wonderful waxworks you ever saw.” They are seated on stone chairs and the further in they walked the more crueler their faces appeared until finally they reached the last, and seemingly most important, figure in the room:

The last figure of all was the most interesting – a woman even more richly dressed then the others, very tall (but every figure in that room was taller than the people of our world), with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away. Yet she was beautiful too. Years afterward when he was an old man, Digory said he had never in all his life known a woman so beautiful.

In the middle of the great hall stood a small stone pillar and atop it was a little golden bell suspended from a small arch with an equally small hammer beside it for which to strike it. It was too much for Digory to resist. Even though Polly was all for leaving the room, Digory insisted they strike the bell in order to find out what would happen. A vehement argument ensues between the two and then:

I can't excuse what he did next except by saying that he was very sorry for it afterwards (and so were a good many other people). Before Polly's hand reached her pocket, he grabbed her wrist, leaning across her with his back against her chest. Then, keeping her other arm out of the way with his other elbow, he leaned forward, picked up the hammer, and struck the golden bell a light, smart tap. Then he let her go and they fell apart staring at each other and breathing hard. Polly was just beginning to cry, not with fear, and not even because he had hurt her wrist quite fairly badly but with furious anger. Within two seconds, however, they had something to think about that drove their own quarrels quite out of their minds.

As soon as the bell was struck it gave out a note, a sweet note such as you might expected, and not very loud. But instead of dying away again, it went on; and as it went on it grew louder. Before a minute had passed it was twice as loud as it had been to begin with. It was soon so loud that if the children had tried to speak (but they weren't thinking of speaking now – they were just standing with their mouths open) they would not have heard one another. Very soon it was so loud that they could not have heard one another even by shouting. And still it grew: all on one note, a continuous sweet sound, though the sweetness had something horrible about it, till all the air in that great room was throbbing with it and they could feel the stone floor trembling under their feet. Then at last it began to be mixed with another sound, a vague, disastrous noise which sounded first like the roar of a distant train, and then like the crash of a falling tree. They heard something like great weights falling. Finally, with a sudden rush and thunder, and a shake that nearly flung them off their feet, about a quarter of the roof at one end of the room fell in, great blocks of masonry fell all around them, and the walls rocked. The noise of the bell stopped. The clouds of dust cleared away. Everything became quite again.

It was never found out whether the fall of the roof was due to Magic or whether that unbearably loud sound from the bell just happened to strike the note which was more than those crumbling walls could stand.

There! I hope you're satisfied now,” panted Polly.

Well, it's all over, anyway,” said Digory.

And both thought it was; but they had never been more mistaken in their lives.

Holder beware
It's not a feel-good moment in the Narnia-stories. It is a fateful one that unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that will lead to Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and many other troubles that were ultimately visited upon the denizens of Narnia. So why do I like it? The destiny of worlds hinge on innocuous moments like this. That moment in the Garden of Eden when the serpent is whispering insidiously to Eve goading her to doubt God's goodness and the purpose behind the ban on the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden is similar in kind to Polly and Digory's spat before the bell on Charn. From that fateful moment when Eve takes and bites hard into the fruit and in turn hands it to her husband to try so much trouble and pain has flowed and continues to flow. It should teach us humility. It should teach us to listen to the counsel of the Lord and not doubt his goodness even when his commands seem burdensome – or, at the very least, unpopular. It should cause us to ponder that though our rebellion is just one small tap of a hammer, the echo of that strike may reverberate in our lives longer than we know and bring trouble to far more people than ourselves. As General Joshua reminded the Eastern tribes as they returned to their land on the other side of the Jordan, “[Achan] was not the only one who died for his sin” (Joshua 22:20, NIV).

More to come...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Good Reads: Readings from Narnia

My current copy that I am reading from
For as long as our kids can remember, we've started out each school day with about fifteen minutes of family reading and prayer together. When they were very young, I would dutifully plod through The Beginner's Bible (published by Questar) we usually gift parents on their child's Dedication Day. (In fact, we still read chapters 1, 2 and 3 - “The Beginning”, “A Special Helper” and “A Sad Day” - of our now dog-eared copy on the first day of each school year.) As they got older we moved on to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Book of God, The Hobbit and several of Corrie ten Boom's books including The Hiding Place and Tramp for the Lord. Only Emma now is part of our small circle and this past year we read Dancer Off Her Feet by Julie Sheldon and Born Again by Chuck Colson. Last Wednesday, with only seven mornings to go before summer vacation officially begins, I decided that I would read excerpts from some of my favorite moments in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Wednesday, May 30: Chapter 7 “How the Adventure Ended” from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In my opinion, it is one of the most powerful moments in the entire book (if not the series). Poor Eustace, who had unknowingly drank magic water that turned him into a dragon – a doppelgรคnger of the boy he really was on the inside – is miserable and lonely and in searing pain from the gold bracelet he had put on his arm before his transformation. Later, when he has been “undragoned” he shares with Edmund how he was returned to his boy-self. While he did not yet know him by name he had met the Lion who invited him to bathe in a pool in the middle of a garden. But before he could step into it he was informed he would have to undress first. Just about the moment he was going to inform the Lion that he wasn't wearing any clothes it occurred to him that “dragons are snaky sort of things and...can cast their skins.” And thus begins his futile attempt to undress himself. After three attempts to do just this all that he has to show for his efforts are three sets of skins lying in lumps upon the ground. And then the Lion says “ -You will have to let me undress you.” Were he not so incredibly desperate at that moment, he would have flown away but in the absence of any alternative, he lays prone before the lion.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…after a bit the lion took me out and dressed me –“

Dressed you. With his paws?”

Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes.”

It is such a rich picture of our baptism and ultimate sanctification. Our attempts to clean ourselves up never go deep enough to the heart of issue. It is just so much “snake skin.” There are some people who by strength of will can “clean themselves up” and become respectable in the eyes of others but as Isaiah once warned an outwardly religious people,
We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated.
Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.
(Isaiah 64:6, Msg)
No matter how we look on the outside, he sees the inside and has the cure that we require.

I love Lewis' last comment on the rest of Eustace's story:
It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”

Healing and salvation (the same words in Greek in our New Testament) is never a straight line. All of us – even the ones we esteem the highest – are not only saved at a moment in time when we open our heart to the Savior but are also in the process of being saved. Like Lazarus we shuffle out of the tomb Frankenstein-like and need the careful attention of Christian brothers and sisters who come alongside us to help us step out of our grungy grave clothes and be properly fitted with the attire suitable for a son or daughter of the King. Sometimes we think we know what is right for us (even though we should know better). Scripture always assumes we belong to a loving faith community that bears with us as salvation works from the inside out.

Thursday, May 31: Chapter 11 “The Unwelcome Fellow Traveler” from The Horse and His Boy.
Of all the Narnia books, this one is my least favorite. It's a good yarn and happens during the days when “Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him” but it is probably the only one in the series I've only read twice (once for myself and then, later, with my kids.)

Shasta is a boy growing up in a little village in far southern Calormen the only son, as it were, of a fisherman. But the truth is he was found as a baby by the fish monger and when Shasta learns that he has been sold to a powerful Calormene lord he serendipitously meets up with a talking horse from Narnia named Bree and they decide to make their get away riding north to Narnia. Along the way they meet up with a young Calormene woman named Aravis (and her talking horse Hwin) who is also seeking to get out of Calormen to avoid being married off without any say in the matter. The four become traveling companions and endure many different adventures in their quest to reach the safety of Narnia.

In chapter 11, Shasta has made it to Archenland and King Lune (who he doesn't yet know is his long lost father) and must travel with the king and his courtiers to meet the oncoming Calormene troops who are coming by stealth to take the kingdom. But along the way he gets separated from the king and his party and up in the mountains enters a fog so thick he cannot see anything. And while traveling along, feeling more alone than ever he meets Something – or Someone in the fog.

I do think,” said Shasta, “that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan: I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out.”

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.

What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.
Shasta, atop a borrowed horse, continues to walk cautiously through the mountain pass with an increasing fear of this silent, breathing presence until he can take it no longer and then asks:
“ ‘Who are you?’ he said, scarcely above a whisper.
One who has waited long for you to speak,’ said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
Are you – are you a giant?’ asked Shasta.
You might call me a giant,’ said the Large Voice. ‘But I am not like the creatures you call giants.’
I can’t see you at all,’ said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, ‘You’re not – not something dead, are you? Oh please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.’
Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. ‘There,’ it said, ‘that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.’
Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the Tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of the desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.
I do not call you unfortunate,’ said the Large Voice.
Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?’ said Shasta.
There was only one lion,’ said the Voice.
What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and – ‘
There was only one: but he was swift of foot.’
How do you know?’
I was the lion.’ And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. ‘I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.’
Then it was you who wounded Aravis?’
It was I.’
But what for?’
Child,’ said the Voice, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.’

'Who are you?' asked Shasta.

'Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.”

There is this wonderful word called “providence” that used to be quite common among followers of Christ. But it's a word you don't hear very much any more. Maybe because it sounds too big or it has too many consonants. In any case, it's a word to describe the “happenings” in our life that at times look “unlucky” but through the eyes of faith and the passing of time we see God at work silently behind the scenes. One of the men from our fellowship was in a terrible motorcycle accident a month ago. Outsiders (and maybe even some insiders) would call him unlucky, how unfortunate that three deer chose to cross the road at the instance he was coming down it. But his wife sees it differently. She is overcome with thankfulness that there was a car at all out on that road immediately following the incident (he was on a country road) and that the accident occurred 200 yards from the driveway of an emergency room technician. It's the kind of stuff that contributed to her still being a wife instead of a widow. Our forebears would have said it this way: “Providentially, the girlfriend of an emergency room technician came along immediately following the collision and was on the phone with her beloved soon after.” Am I saying God caused the accident? Of course not but the sovereign God of space and time knows where his own are and in the “st. nick of time” had a trained individual on the spot beginning treatment that probably saved his life. And, of course, Steve's story is just at the beginning of the telling. Time will only tell what God is up to in all this havoc that surrounds his family right at the present time. But we are buoyed by Scripture which affirms unequivocally that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV). “In all things” means what it means and so at the end of the day we may not have a clue what God is up to but we can be reminded that He is good and means our good and in that can take comfort.

More to come...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Feeling sane again

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. 2 Corinthians 4:7, The Message

So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. 2 Corinthians 4:16, The Message

I'm a usual upbeat guy. In fact, I like to tell people that I'm usually encouraged for no reason in particular. It is my nature – or, has been, for as long as I can remember. Of course, like everyone else, I have my “blue” days, too. In the “old” days, those usually came on a Thursday instead of Monday typical for folks of my profession. That was the day after youth group when a despondency would settle on me about the dumb choices kids I knew and worked with had made, were making or were in the process of making. Looking back now, I took too much of the blame for their lack of spiritual progress. That they were choosing poorly wasn't because they were misinformed or ignorant – or they weren't loved. Our carnal nature is such the lodestone that apart from the grace of God, I would have jumped right in that cesspool with them.

But lately, a blue mood has settled on me that has been difficult to shake and I'm not sure the reason why. Maybe it's the reality of turning 50. I don't have anything really to complain about: I have a wonderful wife who loves me in spite of myself, I have four amazing children, a fellowship of Christian people who continue to choose me as their pastor (and pay me to do just that), I have work that I love, I have good health, my own home, and a bunch of stuff fills my garage and basement. What more could I ask for? So the view at 50 isn't discouraging...but, as I tried to tell my dad last night while we talked on the phone, I've had a few moments lately where I find myself looking at that same view and saying, “This is my life. Were I to keel over today and kick the bucket, what would be the evidence that I was here?” It's not a question based on logic and therefore it can't be answered logically. I shared with Linda yesterday that I have been feeling insecure of late – and all it takes is a whisper to make me look over my shoulder and second-guess myself.

For instance, this past Sunday for the first time in a long time I feel like I bombed when it came to my delivery. Usually, I don't try to overly assess the affect a sermon has on people. Experience has taught me that often what I say is not what they hear. And like a fellow-pastor recently reminded me, “We're the only profession that can't claim success when something goes right because it's God's work and not ours.” But this past Sunday morning, after working two hours on organizing my thoughts, the power went out momentarily and when it came back on everything I had gathered was lost to cyberspace. I didn't swear. I just figured, well, I guess I'm gonna ad-lib this one. Besides, since I had already hashed out the major points it should be fairly fresh in my mind. But while I hit on some of the points I just felt like I rambled on and on...and on in a stream-of-consciousness-sort of way. I didn't even ask Linda what she thought afterward. Better not to ask than to learn that, yes, you did ramble incoherently for nearly an hour. Better just to hope that look on their faces was wonder and not, “I wonder where he is going with this...”

A few days later, only half of the team from my 2011 Cross Country squad showed up for the fall sign-up. That's fairly typical but when you are already feeling insecure, it's another body blow to the solar plexus. These past few days I see “problems” instead of “potential” and feel “fear” instead of “faith.” I realize it's all so subjective and someone else who may read this who is crossing through far more murkier waters would be totally right to roll their eyes at my pouty-ness. After all, Kari, a woman from our fellowship whose whole world was turned upside down about a month ago when her husband was in a terrible motorcycle accident has far more real fear and problems than the imagined ones that recently have descended on me like a minor plague of gnats.

Yesterday, however, was a good day. It was my sabbath day and for the first time in many a Thursday I could look forward to an entire day and evening with nothing planned. So, I slept in until 7 (a rare thing in and of itself) and after I took Emma to school, Linda and I sat together enjoying our morning coffee and watching the Today Show. In fact, I lazed around the house for a good part of the morning enjoying Linda's company and tending to a project I have been working on. By late morning, the sun had come out and for a good part of the afternoon I enjoyed myself doing yard work (for a pastor, there is some satisfaction in getting something done because so much of the focus of my work – people – is never really done.) I cut and trimmed grass, pruned some branches, and spread some mulch in the pumpkin garden. After dinner, Linda, Charlie, Emma and I drove up to Rice Lake to drop off a few of our bikes that needed repair and then when we returned home I burned the brush I had accumulated during the afternoon. My day was full of simple errands and tasks that merely required my attention. That the day turned out to be an awesome late spring afternoon to tend to these tasks was only a bonus. And then last night, after the fire had died down, I walked downtown to sit in the House of Prayer (HoP) for about an hour. I needed some coffee first so as I was walking down to Kwik Trip I ran into Hannah, a young woman from our fellowship who asked to accompany me. I was glad for the company as we spoke of movies and weekend plans. Ed lead worship during the gathering at HoP last night, so it was nice to show up, sit down and resist the urge to “start” something. As good as the day had been, my heart was feeling cold. But worship was good and later, when Josh accompanied Ed, they hit a vein that all of us followed into a spontaneous time of worship in tongues and English. By the end of it, the blue mood had lifted and when I finally stepped out to walk home on a beautiful evening I enjoyed a long, leisurely conversation with my mom and dad. My sanity – from the Latin word sanitas meaning health -had been restored and when I crawled into bed it was with a renewed sense of God's presence with me. 

No one lives on Cloud 9 perpetually. We all now live east of Eden amidst the falleness of mankind, yes, as well as within our neighborhoods and homes. So much of what I do is potential – a sermon is merely an exercise in casting or watering seed. So is conducting a Bible study, visiting an inmate at the Justice Center, and praying for a guy who came within inches of losing his life a month ago. The seed will either grow like gangbusters (as my dad used to say) or be crowded out to the margins and become simply words. The hope is that my visit and my prayer will stimulate hope and faith but things can run askew there, too. It is all so much potential. And again, if things go right – the seed grows or thrives or bursts from the ground or sends out more shoots – there is no credit I can take for myself. It is all so much the secret work of Him who continues to work in all of us “giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:13, NLT)